The Asian Pacific American Student Services has launched a Pacific Islander-focused initiative on campus in an effort to encourage more unity on campus.
The Promoting Unity, Liberation and Education initiative held its first panel event, We Are Leaders, last week. Pacific Islanders who are leaders in their own career fields spoke on the panel and discussed their experiences.
“It was really exciting,” said Sumun Pendakur, director of Asian Pacific American Student Services. “There were architects, there were filmmakers and there were physicians. People who were breaking the glass ceilings in their own fields, but at the same time, every one of these people were doing something with the community at the same time.“
Pendakur said the event targeted the goal of PULE: to create dialogue in the larger USC community around stereotypes held about Pacific Islanders, and encourage younger students to apply for higher education.
“People really wanted to create this space,” Pendakur said. “I think we as educators need to think, ‘How do we help students, how do we critically adjust stereotypes and how do we tell the stories that are untold?’”
Pendakur said she wants the program to help Pacific Islanders and students of all different ethnicities to come together and create a dialogue to help build community and break stereotypes.
“Too often when people think of Pacific Islander, they think of hula, or you have these broad sort of stereotypical images like football, gang members or lazy islanders,” Pendakur said. “This was the opportunity to build a community-based program and kind of shatter some of these stereotypes at the same time.”
Asian Pacific American Student Services is aimed at creating opportunities to help students with leadership development and mentoring, as well as expanding opportunities for cross-cultural involvement for students of different backgrounds.
“A couple of years ago I was thinking that too often the Pacific Islander part of the Asian Pacific Americans gets lost in the mix,” Pendakur said. “Pacific Islander issues have real specificities, and I wanted to make sure that we were not only talking about the specificities, but also really attempting to build more of a community here for Pacific Islander students and students of non-specific Pacific Islander backgrounds.”
Pendakur set up focus groups to gain input from both community-based leaders and activists as well as from Pacific Islander students at USC to gauge what they felt was missing from the university.
“We have all of the research available, but we wanted to really understand the small community size and the alienation felt by many Pacific Islander students expressed at the focus groups,” she said.
DannyBoy Naha-Ve’evalu, a sophomore majoring in cinema-television critical studies, is a project coordinator with PULE, and said USC needs more programs to help Pacific Islander students.
“I am Samoan, Tahitian, Hawaiian and French. I grew up and I identify with Samoan, and it makes me feel like I’m here for a purpose,” Naha-Ve’evalu said. “I think it is high time for Pacific Islanders to leave a mark and have that stage at USC.”
Naha-Ve’evalu said it was a difficult transition for him as a transfer student, since he did not have many people to identify with on campus.
“I felt like a needle in a haystack, and that is part of the reason why I think this program is important,” Naha-Ve’evalu said. “It not only helps Pacific Islanders learn about their own identity, but they have an organization where they can talk about issues in their community.”
Brittany Valdez, a graduate student studying social work who is also a project coordinator, said she would like to encourage more Pacific Islander students to apply to college.
“When I worked as an assistant director with the USC Marshall Undergraduate Admissions Office, I would continuously see low numbers of Pacific Islander students and professors in higher education.” Valdez said. “I became concerned, wondering why these numbers are low — not just at USC, but in universities nationwide.”
PULE’s next event is planned for Friday Nov. 12, when students will go to the Pacific Islander Ethnic Art Museum.
In the spring, Pendakur said PULE will host a number of programs, including film screenings, film festivals and educational volunteer opportunities. There might also be a Pacific Islander cultural arts showcase, she said.
Pendakur and the project coordinators said they are excited about the future of PULE.
“Hopefully we can get something going on with the ethnic studies,” Valdez said. “We hope to see it continue to progress and to keep this dialogue open against stereotypes.”
Pendakur plans to build a collaborative pipeline program with local area middle and high schools to increase Pacific Islander application and admission to USC in the future.